Every so often, I think I did it backward.
I grew up in New Orleans, which –– it must be said –– is not really the most wholesome place in America, and went to college in Columbia, Mo., which is frequently ranked by national magazines as one of the best places to raise a family. And then, once I started my own family, I moved back to New Orleans.
I don’t regret it, any of it, but sometimes I wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d spent my late teens/early 20s in the city with drive-through daiquiri stands and the alcoholic neon chaos of Bourbon Street rather than the city with a 24-hour Wal-Mart and a really great corn maze in the next town over.
I thought about that as I drove down Broadway last weekend, past the signs that said “Josephine Louise” and “Butler”; past the minivans with their flashers on; past the dads lugging clothes and shoes and keepsakes and microwaves, resigned looks on their sweaty faces; past the moms almost vibrating with anxiety and the kids almost vibrating with excitement.
Soon, I knew, the parents would drive away, and the matriculating freshmen would go out and introduce themselves to the city in the traditional manner: drinking something strong and primary-colored and then possibly vomiting in the street. This tradition is not unique to New Orleans. I did this my first weekend as a college freshman in Missouri, downing several cups of tequila mixed with Hawaiian Punch –– I can’t imagine why there’s not a formal name for this delightful cocktail –– and ending up sprawled on Julie Zerull’s dorm room floor, laughing hysterically while someone played the guitar and then breaking down in tears when the room wouldn’t stop spinning.
But before that ritual, there’s the ritual of saying goodbye.
“You can always come home,” my dad told me 11 years ago as we drove up Interstate 55, vast green farmland all around us, Steely Dan and Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon on the stereo, headed to my new life in the Midwest. “Nothing has to be forever.”
As these 18-year-olds prepare to settle in to New Orleans and as they say goodbye, I imagine their parents are telling them the same thing: “You can always come home. Nothing has to be forever.”
Their parents might say that, and their parents might mean that.
It’s different here, though. It doesn’t work on everyone, but for a certain group of people, there’s an elaborate magic trick New Orleans performs: It becomes your home. You might not notice it until you go back to where you grew up and try to order a Bloody Mary at a diner at 9:30 in the morning. You might not notice it until you go to a parade on Memorial Day and think, “This is it? You call this a parade? Some Shriners throwing Laffy Taffy and a dozen pickup trucks with kids in the back waving American flags is not a parade, people!” You might not notice it until you ask for a beer “to go” or until you go to see live music that ends promptly at 2 a.m. instead of continuing, ever-more-frenzied, until you walk out of the club and see the peachy-pink streaks of dawn.
It might not be where you came from, but New Orleans, as many people know firsthand, can get in your blood and make you its own and render you both unfit and unwilling to live anywhere else.
This is a city that takes the idea of being a native very seriously, and some natives get snotty about the influx of students, refusing to consider them “real” New Orleanians. But just as it’s been said that converts often make the best Catholics, I think these converts often make the best New Orleanians.
Welcome, freshmen. And welcome home.